Below is my column in the Hill on the censorship of Jason Aldean’s hit single “Try That in a Small Town” by Country Music Television (CMT). Advocates are taking credit for the cancel campaign and, like CMT, appear tone deaf to the implications (and the response) to this censorship.
Here is the column:
Country music singer Jason Aldean’s hit single “Try That in a Small Town” secured two distinctions this week. It hit number one on the country charts, and it was pulled by Country Music Television (CMT).
Putting aside CMT’s effort to become the Bud Light of music networks, the decision to yield to the intense cancel campaign is an abandonment of principles of artistic freedom and free speech.
The song became the focus of many groups on the left for its criticism of violent protests and criminal acts. The song contrasts the culture of small towns with that of big cities. Aldean sings:
“Cuss out a cop, spit in his face
Stomp on the flag and light it up
Yeah, ya think you’re tough.
“Well, try that in a small town
See how far ya make it down the road.”
Aldean took to Twitter to alert fans of the CMT censorship.
“In the past 24 hours I have been accused of releasing a pro-lynching song (a song that has been out since May) and was subject to the comparison that I (direct quote) was not too pleased with the nationwide BLM protests. These references are not only meritless, but dangerous.
There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it — and there isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage — and while I can try and respect others to have their own interpretation of a song with music — this one goes too far.”
Gun control advocates were also outraged by references to the use of a gun to deal with these problems:
“Got a gun that my granddad gave me
They say one day they’re gonna round up
Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck.”
I can certainly understand why those lines caused objections. Frankly, I also found them disturbing. However, I also find a lot of anti-cop and gang-banging lyrics disturbing, yet I would oppose any effort to censor such music.
This controversy only helps highlight how the corporate effort to control what people hear or consume is backfiring.
For centuries, the adage that “you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” has been a warning to those who seek to compel others to live or act in particular ways. Today, that adage could well be “you cannot make them drink Bud Light, eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or shop at Target.”
We are seeing an intriguing rise of consumer politics as average people express their opposition through their purchases and market choices. It is Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” at work, but on a political level. These days, that invisible hand seems to be giving a middle finger to corporate censorship and social agendas.
Corporations have long known that their social and political agendas were unpopular with many consumers. But they gambled that consumers would not boycott Disney theme parks or NFL games. They are a captive audience — people will want to ride Space Mountain or watch the Bears play.
However, that is not the case when there are fungible or alternative products. Bud Light is an example. The company is still in free-fall with customers after Alissa Heinerscheid, vice president of marketing for Bud Light, pledged to change the beer companies “fratty reputation and embrace inclusivity.” She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. After the company celebrated the transitioning of transgender activist Dylan Mulvaney, beer drinkers opted for other brands.
For many consumers, the rejection appears as much about corporate social activism as transgender politics. Every time irate beer drinkers pick up Modelo Especial instead of Bud Light, they feel a sense of satisfaction — a political chaser with their beer. (Modelo has now passed Bud Light as America’s most popular brand.)
Ben & Jerry’s reportedly lost $2 billion after celebrating the July 4th by shaming the United States over “stolen” Indian lands and demanding the return of Mount Rushmore. The same phenomenon appears to be playing out with corporations like Target, which has lost billions after a similar controversy.
CMT may be closer to the NFL than Bud Light. There are few alternatives for country music listeners. However, there are some, from YouTube to direct purchases. The latter seems to be the choice of many, as the song skyrocketed to the top of the charts after CMT’s censorship.
For many, CMT (which has its headquarters in One Astor Plaza in New York City) is out of touch not only with the small town culture of Aldean, but also with its consumer base.
As consumers tank brands such as Bud Light, and as companies such as Disney experience significant drops in profits, shareholders may become vocal about these decisions. Even if they are agnostic about free speech, they tend to be devout when it comes to profits.
CMT is unlikely to be as defiant as Disney. While many families objected to Disney’s social agenda, the size of the corporation is so large and it is sufficiently diversified that it can take a market hit that would crush most other companies. CMT is neither diversified nor insulated to the same extent. It is closer to Bud Light. It sells country music, and consumers can find other outlets for their tastes.
By pulling the song, CMT tied its brand to censorship, even if only temporarily. What Bud Light showed is that companies cannot attempt nuanced half-measures. If it is going to avoid a “Bud Light moment,” it has to offer more than a “my bad.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.